They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not

For the Fallen

BY LAURENCE BINYON

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, 

England mourns for her dead across the sea. 

Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, 

Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal 

Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres, 

There is music in the midst of desolation 

And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, 

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. 

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted; 

They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 

At the going down of the sun and in the morning 

We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; 

They sit no more at familiar tables of home; 

They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; 

They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound, 

Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, 

To the innermost heart of their own land they are known 

As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, 

Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; 

As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, 

To the end, to the end, they remain.

Source: The London Times (1914)

Peter Jackson, perhaps best known for his brilliant work on The Lord of the Rings, has produced a stunning documentary using remastered film from World War I. He was given privy to hundreds and hundreds of hours of old films from that era along with a mandate to create something stunning, different. His final product, They Young Shall Not Grow Old, is a moving homage to the young men who so gallantly volunteered to fight in a war that they so little understood. It boldly demonstrates their bravery and their innocence in heartbreaking scenes that remind us of the treasures that are lost when we send our youth off to war.

Jackson had to first create a unified story from the millions of images that he found in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. He chose to focus on the stories from British men who had told of their personal experiences during World War I in an oral history project created in the nineteen sixties. Using only their voices and actual footage from the time of the war Jackson paints a portrait of bravery and fear as we follow the young men who began as naive innocents in support of their country only to learn how horrific battle can actually be.

Jackson’s challenge was to make the old footage more modern and easy to watch. Most of the film was in terrible shape, almost unusable in many instances. It was too dark or too light, blotchy and prone to appear jumpy. Using modern techniques Jackson and his team were able to adjust the speed, add appropriate colors and even create sound. The result was a stunning portrait of real individuals who brought the feelings associated with that war to life.

Jackson’s own grandfather participated in World War I and so his film was a labor of love for a man who in many ways became broken as a result of his participation in that awful chapter of history. The documentary demonstrates the humanity of the ordeal in the faces and voices of real people. Many of the men appear to be barely within reach of adulthood and yet they were to endure unbelievable horror in days spent in the trenches and the battles. Jackson pictures one group staring at the camera with obvious fear in their eyes and later notes that virtually all of them would die. It would be the last image of them alive.

Jackson brilliantly brings both the glory and the brutal reality of war to life in a way that no amount of acting is able to do. It is a stunning feat that will not soon leave my mind. Sadly the documentary will only be shown twice in December, at least at this point in time. I believe that it is such an important work that it will eventually become available to a wider audience. It is a film that every one of us should view.

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God Knows Where I Am

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Photo by Nicolas Postiglioni on Pexels.com

I have had two passionate causes in my life. One was made by my own choice. The other was forced upon me by circumstance. Both of them have been major forces that weaved through every single day of my adulthood and seemingly defined my purpose here on this earth. One is a popular political football of sorts, often discussed but rarely resolved. The other is almost taboo, the sort of topic carefully whispered about, and almost always entirely misunderstood. Of course I am speaking of both the education of our young people and the almost haphazard way in which we deal with those among us who are mentally ill.

Those who know me well and those who read my posts understand that I have devoted myself to helping students and their teachers to find quality classrooms and educational standards that include learning how to think critically and how to lead meaningful lives. While there are still great problems with schools and universities that include both methodologies and financial considerations, I am far from alone is voicing both my concerns and my ideas for approaching them. Teachers, professors, parents, and the students themselves are quite vocal about their expectations for preparing each generation for the future. As such education is a subject that quite often finds its way into political discourse. There is much debate over financing and structuring of our public school system, and such discussions while slow to cause actual changes still manage to keep a modicum of attention on one of the most important issues in our country.

On the other hand, mental illness and how we deal with it is a kind of orphan. It is one of those exceedingly uncomfortable subjects that make us squirm even at the mere mention. Furthermore it is maddeningly misunderstood by those who have been fortunate enough not to experience its crushing effects. It is a disease with physical origins that are not as easy to see as a case of diabetes or a heart attack. The science around it is still in its infancy compared to other medical issues. There are few massive institutions like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that are dedicated to unlocking the secrets to combating mental illness. The funding for those who choose to enter the world of psychology or psychiatry is generally well below that of other medical fields, and, speaking of fields, we never see athletes donning a color to promote support and awareness of those individuals and their family members who fight relentlessly and alone to care for loved ones ravaged by mental illness. It is all too easy to believe that nobody is particularly concerned about those who endure diseases like chronic depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and other forms of mind numbing illness. Instead we look away from those that we all too often blithely categorize as “crazy.” In fact, I am certain that I lost many of my potential readers in the first paragraph of this blog as soon as I mentioned mental illness.

I have not secreted the fact that my dear mother had bipolar disorder nor that me and my brothers became her lifelong caretakers in an odyssey that lasted from 1969 until her death in 2011. It was often a frustrating journey punctuated by a seeming lack of concern by a society that all too many times shunned our mother when she was most in need of support. A lack of doctors, hospitals, finances and most of all understanding complicated our search for a kind and compassionate resolution to her needs and ours. Along the way we encountered dedicated professionals who were as troubled as we were like Dr. Thomas Brandon and Dr. Jary Lesser, but we also found many who had been so chewed up alive by the laws and the lack of funding that they had become far too cynical to be of help. We learned who the people were that we could trust, and realized that their numbers were far fewer than we had hoped.

On this past Sunday I received a text from my youngest daughter insisting that I watch a documentary on Netflix called, God Knows Where I Am. Without revealing any spoilers she simply said that it was sad but quite good, so I decided to end what had been a glorious day spent with my grandsons by viewing the film. I soon learned that it was the story of a woman who was found dead inside a vacant farmhouse, seemingly the victim of starvation. Amazingly she had filled several spiral notebooks with daily descriptions of her strange saga including a final declaration that included her name, Social Security number, and designation of where she wished to be buried. What investigators ultimately found is that the victim, Linda Bishop, was from a middle class family that had been filled with love and delightful experiences. Linda was well educated and possessed a personality that garnered her many friends. She married, had a daughter whom she adored, and eventually divorced. The rest of the tale devolves into a brutally heartbreaking saga of her crushing fall into mental illness and the ways in which our current system of dealing with cases such as hers totally failed both Linda and her family.

As I watched the film I found myself feeling as though it was my own mother’s story and that of me and my brothers. I was able to relate to every segment of the unfolding tragedy. My stomach clinched into the old familiar knot that often plagued me whenever my mom was particularly sick. I have been to all of the same dark places that Linda Bishop’s loved ones have been. I know from my own experiences how much truth lies in this documentary, and I hope beyond hope that enough people will watch it and embrace it so that a kind of revolution will begin aimed at fixing a very broken system that too often leaves everyone concerned in a state of abject fear and dejection.

My brothers and I were lucky enough to keep my mother from the kind of harm that overcame Linda Bishop, but it was a battle that we waged virtually every single day, and mostly alone. It was a fight not just for her life but our own. I know that we made many mistakes, but ultimately we slew the dragon of ignorance and lack of concern that made every step of the way more difficult that it need have been. I will speak out for those who have mental illnesses and for their families until I draw my last breath. I will never quite understand why it is not yet one of the most important causes in our world, but I will not let the lack of interest stand in my way of bringing awareness. For now I simply implore everyone to watch God Knows Where I Am. Surely it will tear at your heart.

Unrest

omar-jen-wheelchair-woodsShe is incredibly bright and beautiful, a graduate of Harvard who was about to complete her doctorate at Princeton. She was in love with a brilliant man and the two of them travelled the world together. They made plans to marry, have a family, build their stunning careers together, and then she caught the flu. It was a particularly harsh case with fevers of one hundred four degrees. When she was well once again she felt debilitated, but thought little of the residual effects. She had after all been very ill. She told herself that it would simply take time to regain her energy, but something was very wrong because instead of growing stronger she began to feel more and more weak. There were even times when her mind did not seem to work properly. She was unable to find the proper words to express herself. It was all so frightening.

Eventually her symptoms became so concerning that she sought the expertise of a medical doctor. He insinuated that it was all in her head, diagnosing her with what used to be known as hysteria. He suggested that she was reacting to some deep seated trauma that she most likely was unable to remember. He sent her home with no real explanation for what was happening, and she began to wonder if she was indeed going crazy. That’s when she got an idea.

The next time her symptoms became so severe that she literally collapsed in pain, unable to move or express herself, she asked her husband to film the incident. She took the video to a neurologist who was stunned by what he saw. He eventually told her that she had ME. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, a strange disease that is thought to afflict ten to fifteen million people worldwide. There is no definitive test for the illness and no cure. The diagnosis is made based on symptoms alone which include excessive fatigue after mental or physical activity, intolerance to exercise, joint and/or muscle pain, memory problems, difficulty walking, sore throats, headaches, flu-like symptoms, sleep disturbance, bowel problems and mood swings.

The disease is also known as chronic fatigue syndrome and affects those who have it along a spectrum from individuals who endure a mild attack and then recover fully, to those who become completely homebound and bed ridden. There is no known cause but the disease appears to follow otherwise fairly typical and minor illnesses like the flu. Some believe that the roots of the problems lie in hormonal or allergy issues, but none of the research has proven any of the theories. It is a greatly misunderstood disease that sometimes results in psychiatric diagnoses rather than physical ones.

The woman whose life was so impacted by ME is Jennifer Brea, and she has a debilitating case of the disease that has radically altered the trajectory of her life. In a fashion keeping with her personality she decided to film her journey along with that of four other victims so that she might shed light on a mostly misunderstood illness. In conjunction with Sundance Films she created the documentary. Unrest, that chronicles her experiences as well those of the four others whose lives have been so radically changed after contracting ME. The film debuted on the PBS program Independent Lens this January and its power to visually explain what happens to those who have ME is emotionally visceral.

Jennifer Brea holds back nothing in her depiction of what ME has done to her and the relationship that she shares with her husband. She honestly expresses the fears and disappointments that plague her as much as the symptoms. She presents a compelling argument for more research by noting that those who are stricken often become like missing persons as they are forced to be hostages to their illness. She tells a compelling story of families broken apart and individuals losing their identities all while the rest of the world remains mostly ignorant of the horrors of this strange condition.

Her own story is one of the love that she and her husband share in spite of the problems that have so changed the way that they once thought they might live. She wants to be able to give him the kind of relationship that she had thought they would have, but instead is continually thwarted by recurrences of the most trying symptoms. Her husband has nobly stood by her, but even his patience is often tried by the confusing nature of his wife’s illness.

Ms. Brea shows a family in Sweden whose child was institutionalized in a psychiatric facility because doctors there were unwilling to accept a diagnosis of ME for her. Brea also introduces us to a woman who had been a happy wife and mother, one who had no idea that she would eventually be confined to bed with her own husband believing that she was just insane rather than physically ill. Her marriage deteriorated and she struggled to survive. When one of her daughters came down with the same disease her world unraveled even more.

The film is so personal, so real that those of us viewing the stories become involved with the characters, particularly Jennifer Brea herself. We watch her gaining strength and find ourselves hoping as much as she and her husband do that she will somehow miraculously improve. We cry with empathy as we become all too familiar with the struggles associated with ME.

Unrest is a touching and important documentary and quite worthy of the accolades that it has received. Hopefully it will also become the impetus for more research into the mysterious illness that it depicts with so much unflinching insight and compassion. At the present time very little is being done to learn how and why this illness affects certain people. There is only a smattering of interest in finding something that will cure those afflicted with its devastating symptoms. It is a grand mystery that shows no signs of being solved while real people suffer from the misunderstandings and lack of knowledge surrounding it. Hopefully Jennifer Brea has opened a door of awareness that will ultimately lead to the studies that will eradicate it or at least lead to more hopeful treatments. Perhaps just by spreading information about ME Unrest will at the very least bring more compassion to those who deal with its tragic effects.

When In The Course

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It always amazes me how we humans generally follow the rules. On any given day millions of people adhere to speed limits, stop at red lights even if there is nobody around, stay inside their designated lanes. There is always an implied threat of being caught and given a citation for breaking the law, but mostly people do what they are supposed to do because they realize that the statutes have been set in place for safety and the common good. We innately understand the value of working together for the benefit of all even if it is sometimes a bit inconvenient.

There are thousands of examples of how most of us know, understand and appreciate conformity to the directives that keep our society running smoothly. Now and again, however, we encounter situations in which it becomes uncomfortable to simply sit back and adhere to the status quo. In those moments we feel a grip in our stomaches and ask ourselves what our role should be. Do we sit back and quietly watch or do we rise up to voice our concerns? When is it best to avoid the fray, and when must we say something lest we no longer be able to gaze at ourselves in the mirror? How do we decide which aspect of a complex disagreement is the most right and just?

Since I am a huge fan of history I tend to be a documentary fangirl. Netflix is all too aware of my viewing preferences, and they continuously alert me to any new features that are available for my viewing pleasure. Recently they suggested that I might enjoy a program about Winston Churchill and his role during World War II. The story began at a time when much of the world was doing its best to ignore the warning signs that Adolf Hitler was a maniacal and dangerous dictator. Churchill was one of the few who consistently voiced concerns about the direction in which Germany was heading, in part because he was so vocal, Churchill’s views were initially thought to be a bit kooky. Nobody wanted to engage in controversy, and doing so was thought to be risky. Thus most of the world donned rose colored glasses and went about their routines hoping that the shenanigans in Germany would at worst be little more than an annoyance. Of course we know that such was not the case and Churchill was proven to be the right voice at the right time. His analysis of Adolf Hitler was insightful and he never quelled his criticisms of the dangers that he saw unfolding in Europe. If not for his steadfast diligence, Britain might have endured the same fate as Czechoslovakia, Poland and France.

Churchill somehow sensed that quietly accepting Adolf Hitler and hoping that he would simply fade away was an untenable stance. He raised his voice at a moment in time when it was unpopular to do so. People were tired. They had lost much in World War I. They worried that becoming divisive might shatter the peace that was precarious at best. it felt better to just ignore the craziness, keep the boat from rocking. Eventually the entire world would be forced to take a stand, choose a side, something that most had hoped to avoid. The question that lingers to this day is what people might have done from the very beginning to prevent the carnage that ensued. How different would that phase of history have been if Hitler had been defied not just by other nations, but by the German people from the moment that his ideas began to appear unhinged? 

The problem with such wishful thinking is that it is utterly useless after the fact. It is only in the moment that each of us has an opportunity to be heard and to do what we believe to be right. The trick is in unravelling the complexities of a situation and reaching the heart of the matter. To be willing to stand on a mountain top warning our fellow human beings of danger, we must first believe with all of our hearts that we will not be viewed as just another boy crying wolf. We must sense that what we have to say is so important that to secret it away in our hearts would be morally wrong. In such instances we sense that we must bend or even fracture the mores and rules that confine us so that our warnings might be heard.

My Facebook wall has been filled with impassioned pleas for love and understanding of late. Mothers worry about the contentious world in which their children must grow into adults. It feels as though hate is festering in the most unexpected places. We can’t even get a sense of well being from listening to our president, because he is more concerned with defending himself than being a beacon of hope. It feels as though we are being torn apart as a nation and within our relationships. So many are choosing to lock themselves away from it all. Only a few brave souls are willing to take the heat of criticism by voicing their concerns. The rest try to pretend that the unrest will soon all just go away, but even recent history has shown us all too clearly that the issues that trouble us only become more and more complex when we ignore them. Furthermore, they are rarely resolved when we are unable to find ways of working together.

I truly believe that the evil of this world represents a small minority, but it is nonetheless up to all good people to keep it in check. The hate that we see must always be called out for what it is. There can be no excuses, no watering down of our contempt. We cannot just look the other way when we see it, for it is when the good people join forces that they transform into an immovable power. They cannot be stopped until the depravity is eradicated. This truth has been demonstrated time and time again, so I wonder why we are so often reluctant to use it.

The fact is that there are groups of people in our country today who advocate the most detestable ideas possible. Under the guise of protecting an object, a statue, such groups held an abhorrent rally in Charlottesville that ultimately resulted in the death of an innocent young woman and the injury of others. Their only intent was to spread their poisonous ideas, not to somehow save the history of the south. They travel from venue to venue hoping to gain attention and new followers. They besmirch the legacy of the generation who defeated Hitler and all for which he stood when they parade through towns imitating the one of the most vile regimes that the world has seen. They are petty and lost souls who fester in anger, blaming imagined  slights for their own inconsequential lives. Any good thinking person should shun them and their despicable ideas, not find excuses for their behavior and thereby fuel their momentum. In other words, this is a watershed moment in which decent people must stand together to let such groups know that we will not accept their torches, their Nazi salutes, or their philosophies of hate. We will not allow them to enlist us in their misdirected causes. We will not find ways to mitigate their responsibility for spreading a disease of prejudice. We will make them the pariahs that they deserve to be.

Don’t turn away. Don’t tune out. Sometimes we have to make noise. Sometimes we have to demonstrate our courage. Our children are watching. Let’s show them what to do when in the course of human events we have no other choice than to stand firmly, proudly and publicly for what is right.

Ordinary Heroes

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Imagine that is it 1940, only a little over twenty years since World War I ended. Europe had been decimated by ‘the war to end all wars” as it was known. So many young men had been killed or maimed by the hideousness of trench warfare. Royal cousins had fought against one another in a seemingly unnecessary battle that left the common folk weary and eager for peace. In the midst of the rebuilding of nations along came Adolf Hitler with far reaching ambitions for making his country great again. At first the world stood back in stunned disbelief when he began a land grab starting with Czechoslovakia. By the time that he invaded Poland all of Europe understood that he had to be stopped. Britain joined other nations in agreeing to fight against the growing menace of German fascism. Thus in 1940, soldiers from Great Britain and France were engaged in a battle with Germany that had turned into a stunning rout, stranding 400,000 troops on the shores of Dunkirk with their backs to the sea.

It had been an inauspicious beginning to war for both Britain and France. At Dunkirk the soldiers from those countries were in retreat and things looked very bad. The Germans taunted the soldiers with flyers dropped from planes bragging that they had surrounded the Allies on all sides. The troops waited to be rescued and returned to Britain while being continually subjected to air raids from the Germans. They were like fish in a barrel. Added to the difficulty was the fact that big ships could not dock close to shore, so troops had to be ferried in small boats, a tedious and time consuming task. Even though the Brits were able to gaze across the channel and see the outline of home they may as well have been thousands of miles away. In that dark moment many wondered if Britain would be forced to surrender to Germany, leaving Hitler to overtake most of Europe with little or no resistance. It was an horrific possibility.

There are certain times in the history of mankind when ordinary people find the courage to do extraordinary things. Dunkirk was one of those moments. The British understood that they had to get their troops home safely at all costs or face the prospect of an invasion at home. The troops endured nine days of air battles that killed thousands of men, sunk ships and resulted in the loss of many Royal Air Force planes and pilots. It was a dispiriting time and one of the worst military defeats in the history of the country, but help game from a most unlikely source. When word of the disastrous situation reached the people of Britain an incredible thing happened. Fishermen and pleasure craft seamen sailed their boats across the channel to Dunkirk to assist in the rescue efforts. Many of them would become casualties as a result, but even more would bring hope and a way home to the thousands of soldiers who had all but given up any expectation of seeing Britain again.

It is a story of bravery and loyalty and love that Christopher Nolan has brought to the big screen with his usual genius. With an incredible cast, music from Hans Zimmer and sweeping camera angles the movie transports the audience into the tense and unnerving evacuation scene. It is an breathtaking film that provides the viewer with a birds eye view of both the fears and heroics of the soldiers and their leaders as well as the citizens who chose to risk their own lives to help their countrymen. Mostly it is a study of goodness overcoming evil, a subject that Nolan knows how to portray so well.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what happened at Dunkirk in a world that had quite evidently gone mad. I find myself wondering if those of us who live today would be able to muster the courage that the people of that era drew upon again and again until Hitler and his minions had been defeated. Would we have sat back helplessly or would we have been able to draw upon our inner strength to do what was ultimately right? I just don’t know. We seem to have somehow lost our willingness to confront evil. Maybe we have to literally be pushed to desperation before we will ever be able to rise up against the forces who bring so much violence and death to the world. We Americans certainly sat back watching even in 1940, hoping that all of the trouble would somehow just go away while we were safely an ocean away. Ultimately when we felt the sting of attack a couple of years later we too found the grit to join in the fight against an evil that had to be stricken from the earth. Maybe the truth is that none of us want to even think of war until there is no other reasonable choice.

I feel very uncomfortable with the state of things in the present time. We seem to have a president who is more worried about his reputation and popularity than with the needs of our country. We have citizens and lawmakers who are intent on fighting with one another rather than having genuine concern for the problems that plague us. I seriously wonder how we would fare as a people and a country if were we to suddenly find ourselves under attack. Would our dysfunction prevent us from doing what was necessary to save and protect our nation? Would we find a way to demonstrate the kind of determination to preserve freedom that the British citizens did back in 1940? Have we somehow lost our way, and if so will we ever be able to find our way back? These are the troubling thoughts that continually pass through my mind.

I would like to believe that in times of trouble we will be able to join together just as the people of New York City did after 9/11 and much like the citizens of Boston after the bombings at the marathon. Somehow I think that we as a people are in a state of lethargy, but our basic instincts to maintain liberty and justice at all costs still linger inside our hearts. I hope that if there comes a time when we are challenged just as our grandparents and great grandparents were we will find the determination that we need. I refuse to believe that we have all forgotten our role in promulgating the good rather than bad, love rather than hate.

Movies like Dunkirk are important. They draw on our emotions to challenge us to think. They push us to ask questions and learn from our human history. I recommend that all Americans who are over the age of thirteen see this film and take the time to educate themselves about what was happening in that time of long ago. Perhaps it will convince us of the need to consider what is really most important in our society today and to choose leaders who will help us to end our malaise, not further divide us.